Taking Labour seriously
Sarah McDonald reports from a sparsely attended national council meeting
It looks as though the whole of the first day of Left Unity’s November 21-22 annual conference will be given over to a discussion on the Labour Party and LU’s prospects. The November 7 meeting of the national council was told that the standing orders committee has recommended that this suggestion, originating with the Communist Platform, be taken up and it will be put before conference itself.
This, of course, is good news - it means that we will be grappling with the central issue of the day. Events have clearly taken their toll on LU - and they have certainly impacted upon the current NC. Of the 53 elected NC members that remain (two of the original 55 we know have left to join the Labour Party), only around 20 attended. There were about 10 apologies, which leaves almost half unaccounted for - maybe they have left to join Labour too! There was no getting away from it: the whole future of LU is in the balance.
The political discussion took the bizarre form of several comrades leading off for three minutes each on disparate subjects. Andrew Burgin began with a short contribution on the Labour Party following the victory of Jeremy Corbyn. He correctly asserted that LU’s political future is bound up in how we respond and said that many good people had left LU to join Labour - although some wished to remain close to LU.
Next, Kate Hudson offered a comment on Trident, highlighting the centrality of the issue to Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign. She also noted the Scottish factor in that debate, given that the Scottish National Party and now Scottish Labour are both against renewal. She reminded the meeting that Left Unity is affiliated to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and we could work with others to support Jeremy Corbyn on this issue.
Then it was the turn of Oliver New, who talked about supporting the four or five various campaigns against the Trade Union Bill. For her part, Terry Conway stressed the importance of the migrant crisis in Europe, while Felicity Dowling took up various issues regarding welfare cuts and their impact on housing. She commented that - in Liverpool, at any rate - the Labour Party will not be taking the lead in opposing these cuts and so LU must.
Mixture of views
As I say, it was a strange way to begin proceedings, but the ensuing debate was certainly interesting, not least for the mixture of views on display. The Communist Platform’s Jack Conrad started the discussion by welcoming the SOC’s recommendation to devote the first day of conference to discussing the Labour Party, as this is obviously the main issue facing the left in Britain at this time. He also asked for information on how many members LU has lost.
Barbara Segal, the membership secretary, was able to shed some light on this. She informed the NC that around 300 comrades had left in the last three months, with about half of those saying that they had done so in order to join the Labour Party. She added that she understood why comrades were leaving - the Corbyn-led Labour Party is something big, but also comfortable for many people. She said that LU needs to emphasise the areas in which it is different to Labour - such as migration, internationalism and opposition to war - and commented that we ought to be really pushing against the ‘snoopers’ charter’, which the Labour Party is not doing.
Another CP comrade, Yassamine Mather, said that if LU is to survive it must have policies radically different from those of Corbyn, including ‘Corbynomics’. We must also take up issues around democracy, the monarchy, internet freedom and do so in a radical way. She said that Corbyn and McDonnell are likely to continue their policy of compromising with the Labour right - the fact that Corbyn wore a red poppy and sang ‘God save the queen’ at the Remembrance Sunday service is in itself insignificant, yet it is also indicative of how pressure from the rightwing press can bear fruit. She concluded by pointing out that if we are saying the same thing as Labour, we may as well just wind up and join the Labour Party. That did not mean we should not demand affiliation, of course - we should do our best to defeat the right, while at the same time trying to arm the left with principled politics.
However, Joseph Healy felt that calling for affiliation to the Labour Party was mere gesture politics. He commented that Nick Wrack has suddenly written off the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition after all these years of prioritising it, and thrown all his energies into the Labour Party instead. But Labour is not the way forward, he said, and it would be a mistake to devote the first day of our conference solely to this matter when we have many other pressing matters to discuss. Richard Farnos was not looking forward to that prospect either. He said the left’s response to the Labour Party was like a child playing football: chasing after the ball but with no thought for positioning or strategic play. In any case, he was sure the Parliamentary Labour Party and the right will win the internal battle, and when this happens people will turn to LU for their political answers.
Cathy Lowe, for her part, argued we should support the Labour left in any way we can - where there are no strong LU branches, comrades should join Momentum in order to help shape it. John Duveen felt that comrades had been mesmerised by what is taking place in the Labour Party and instead we should concentrate on what is happening to ordinary people on the ground. Salman Shaheen commented that the mood in the room seemed sombre, when in fact these were exciting times. He felt that the key priority should be to get Corbyn into Number 10 in 2020.
Comrade Hudson wondered what the objective possibility is of transforming Labour into a party of social democracy, never mind a socialist party. She felt that Corbyn had not backed down or sold out, but had made strategic decisions, given the balance of political forces. But LU is different, she felt, because it has a different vision of society.
Jack Conrad liked comrade Farnos’s footballing analogy, even if he disagreed with his conclusions. Comrade Conrad argued that the left has to take the Labour Party seriously and that all views on this ought to be argued out at conference. This includes the legitimate, albeit wrong, motion that calls for LU to give up being a party in order to become a think tank. Comrade Conrad said that he want to save LU. As someone in a minority, he also wants to see it transformed - not into a looser formation, but into a Communist Party.
As for the question of affiliation and dual membership, this was the basis on which the Labour Party was formed. The British Socialist Party (forerunner to the Communist Party of Great Britain) was an affiliate of the Labour Party, so this is not something alien to our moment. The comrade described the Labour Party as being led by the left; with the PLP and a middle layer of bureaucrats set on expelling people, plus a base of newly radicalised members. There is a civil war in the party, he said, and we should not sit on the sidelines with our arms folded.
Comrade Conway supported the SOC’s recommendation and recognised that this conference could be both a challenge and an opportunity. Like comrade Hudson, she felt that nothing Corbyn or McDonnell had done should be seen as a retreat - it was “tactical politics”. She also argued that when it comes to Momentum, it should not be a case of either/or. In fact where LU branches are strong, they can have more impact in Momentum. Andrew Burgin came back on this question, saying that Momentum is under pressure from the Labour Party machine - it could tighten up to prevent organised groups from joining. Comrade Burgin asked a relevant question: does LU have something in its politics and internal structure that means it should continue to exist?
Len Arthur felt that LU needs to understand transitional demands - demands that meet the class where it is at. But at the same time it needs a different vision for the future than that of social democracy. I observed that, now that things are shifting to the left, the Trotskyists are speaking the language of Trotskyism once more! It is, however, important that the left is honest about its politics, irrespective of their popularity.
Kate Hudson gave an update on the arrangements for conference. There is likely to be a guest speaker from the Left Bloc in Portugal, which comrade Hudson felt would help set the Corbyn movement in a European context. However, only 100 comrades have registered so far.
Jon Duveen wanted to invite someone from the new left-nationalist Scottish grouping, Rise (Respect, Independence, Socialism and Environmentalism) - a suggestion which myself and Jack Conrad argued against. I also argued that, where possible, conference should hear speakers for and against each motion, rather than choosing them on the basis of gender, race or whatever.
There was some debate as to the order in which motions would be taken. As Anna Bluston commented, it was important that we take the Labour Party first - if LU decides to dissolve itself then everything else becomes irrelevant. Comrade Conrad argued that, while the SOC can make recommendations, conference is sacrosanct. He also argued that the Labour Party must take priority because it calls into question the existence of LU. Comrades Shaheen and Bluston both jokingly said that they wanted to join the CPGB, as they agreed with everything our comrades had said! Comrade Shaheen said he was also against inviting anyone from Rise, as LU had made a decision not to take a position on the Scottish national question.
Comrade Segal asked if it would be possible for uncontroversial, campaigning motions to be voted through without debate, but comrades felt that this was unlikely to work in practice, as there will be unforeseen objections. Jack Conrad questioned why comrade Dowling’s ‘safe spaces’ proposals had fallen off the conference agenda, the answer being that it was submitted four hours after the deadline. Some comrades asked why the working group on ‘safe spaces’ had not met - the reason being, according to Terry Conway, that a handful of comrades end up taking responsibility for a lot of LU’s work and it becomes impossible to get everything done.
The last main agenda item was the financial report from Andrew Burgin. The comrade made the NC aware of the deficit that LU is running. As a result, provisional notice had been given on the lease of our national office. The reason LU is under financial pressure is, of course, due to the number of comrades who have left and have therefore cancelled their standing orders. It was agreed that we should give up the office and continue operations out of Housman’s bookshop in the meantime.
The only point in the meeting when tempers became a little bit frayed was over the CP’s motion calling for the NC to formally apologise to comrade Laurie McCauley from Manchester, who had been unconstitutionally suspended for a year and three months. Joseph Healy felt that the comrade was in part to blame for the length of time that he was suspended, as at first he had refused to meet with the disputes committee. As comrade Mather and myself pointed out, this was because the DC stipulated that the comrade must agree in writing not to report anything about the DC proceedings - in other words, a secret trial.
Comrade Healy also stated that the matter was not brought before the DC for months after the actual event. This is not accurate, as comrade Mather had brought it to the attention of the NC for the previously constituted DC to deal with. There is also email correspondence dealing with this dispute from June 2014. Terry Conway argued that, while Laurie may have felt wronged by the whole shebang, there were other parties who also felt aggrieved.
Jack Conrad who moved the motion, argued that comrade McCauley had been suspended for writing a Weekly Worker article about the activity of a branch, including the discussion at its meetings (ie, a matter of politics). But if you are in politics you should get used to people reporting what you say. If, for whatever reason, you do not want your name to be used, you should say so or use a cadre name.
Anna Bluston said that she was fed up with being asked to endorse decisions made by the DC, where there was no information on what had been discussed - and that she supported the call for transparency, without knowing the full details of this case. Likewise, Salman Shaheen supported the idea that comrade McCauley should be issued an apology for the unconstitutional suspension, again without being aware of the details of the case. Comrade Shaheen put forward an amendment that removed reference to the reasons for the comrade’s suspension, which was accepted by the movers. However, the motion, as amended, fell with nine votes against, six for and five abstentions.
Despite this, it had been a positive meeting that had devoted a lot of time to serious issues. The vast majority of the discussion centred around the Labour Party, whether in the shape of LU’s future, the conference agenda or trade union work. Unlike at the previous NCs that I have attended, time was not devoted to an extended discussion of the minutes and matters arising, or to this or that worthy campaign that could have been agreed at branch level. Maybe LU will cut the mustard after all.